My top ten of an interesting year. The Mail on Sunday, December 4, 2011
You can go to a gig by someone you have barely heard of, as I did with the elegant Danish singer Agnes Obel, and find it full. For an apparently limited form, the pop song has turned out to be capable of great biodiversity.
This should mean that no single voice can dominate any more, and often it does. But this year has belonged to one singer. Men and women, teenagers and parents, music buffs and supermarket shoppers alike fell for the same album: Adele’s 21 (XL).
At a time when CD sales are in steep decline, 21 sold more copies in a year in Britain than any album ever – 3m so far. In America, it has sold 4m; elsewhere, another 3m. It has reached number one in 18 countries.
In a year when the big four record companies shrivelled to just three, an independent label did £100m of business with one album. For all their meagre resources, the indie labels now release twice as many good records as the majors.
Of course, something can sell zillions and still be a turkey. But 21 is a classic, far more rewarding than Adele’s debut album 19. The music is bluesy without being dull, the vocals are bursting with soul, and the lyrics are the tumbling emotions of a modern woman, let down by love. Lady sings the bruise.
Artistically, Adele was matched by another British female. Eight albums into a hefty career, PJ Harvey has made her masterpiece with Let England Shake (Island), a worthy winner of the Mercury Music Prize. It has all the ramshackle charm of the new folk scene and much more originality, as Harvey invents her own genre: sophisticated protest skiffle. It even produced the year’s best T-shirt.
The other five-star album of the year came from an American male as he turned 70. Paul Simon has never made a bad record, but So Beautiful Or So What (Hear Music) is one of his best, rocking on the surface while also rolling in the deep, with intricate guitar figures, sly rhythms and lyrics that roam from the war in Iraq to Martin Luther King.
Behind these three come a clutch of four-star albums with nothing in common but the pleasure they give. Fleet Foxes’ second album Helplessness Blues (Bella Union) proves that new folk can be just as piercingly beautiful as old folk. The worst decision I made all year came at Glastonbury, when my wellies and I trudged past Fleet Foxes to join the hopeless stampede trying to get a decent view of Radiohead – whose album The King of Limbs (XL) is hard work, oblique and astringent, but worth it.
Tom Waits’ Bad As Me (Anti-) is its diametric opposite, rumbustious, knockabout, and dedicated to showing that Waits’s signature can be applied to any genre he chooses. Elbow’s Build A Rocket Boys! (Fiction) is a set of strong tunes and sparkling lyrics with only one weakness: it is so subtle that it hasn’t quite escaped the shadow of its noisier sibling, The Seldom Seen Kid.
The English Riviera (Because Music) by Metronomy lives up to its name with a mixture of sunshine and clouds, warmth and quirkiness. With his third album, Joseph Mount has given Eighties-style synth-pop a twist of gentle humour – Soft Cell meets Michael McIntyre. He uses synthesisers in such a way as to suggest that they are musical instruments, not mere engines of frigidity.
You And I (Polydor) by The Pierces is a charming country-pop album by two sisters who slogged away for years and were about to give up when Guy Berryman from Coldplay rode to the rescue. Anna Calvi (Domino) is a stirring debut from a London singer with a forceful voice and a theatrical bent. If you’re tempted to slip Lady Gaga into a loved one’s stocking, please get this instead.